Today is the birthday (1806) of John Augustus Roebling, a German-born U.S. civil engineer. He is famous for his wire rope suspension bridge designs, in particular, the design of the Brooklyn Bridge. I have a personal interest in Roebling because I lived for 25 years in the old telegraph office on the Delaware and Hudson Canal adjacent to the remains of an aqueduct over the Neversink River that Roebling designed in 1848.
Roebling was the youngest of four children. He was baptized in the Lutheran church Divi Blasii in Mühlhausen. As a young boy he played the bass clarinet and the French horn. He also exhibited great artistic talent for sketches and paintings. His father owned a small tobacco shop, but the business was insufficient to provide livelihood for all three sons. Roebling’s sister Friederike Amalie married Carl August Meissner, a poor merchant in the town, and his oldest brother Herman Christian Roebling prepared to take over the tobacco shop.
At first Roebling attended the gymnasium in Mühlhausen. Recognizing his intelligence at a young age, Roebling’s mother, Friederike Dorothea Roebling arranged for him to be tutored in mathematics and science at Erfurt by Ephraim Salomon Unger. He went to Erfurt when he was 15. In 1824 he passed his surveyor’s examination and returned home for a year. In 1824 he enrolled for two terms at the Bauakademie in Berlin where he studied architecture and engineering under Martin Friedrich Rabe (1765–1856), bridge construction and foundation construction under Johann Friedrich Dietlein (1782–1837), hydraulics under Johann Albert Eytelwein (1764–1848), and languages. Roebling also attended lectures by the philosopher Hegel. Roebling developed an interest in natural philosophy and many years later he worked on a 1,000 page treatise about his own concepts of the universe.
In 1825 Roebling got a government job at Arnsberg, Westphalia, working on military road building for four years. During this period he made sketches for suspension bridges. In 1829 he returned to his home to work out his final thesis and prepare for his second engineer examination. For unknown reasons, he never took the examination.
On May 22, 1831, Roebling left Prussia with his brother Carl and Johann Adolphus Etzler, the technological utopianist. Economic mobility and career advancement were difficult for engineers in Prussian society. This unfortunate state of affairs had been brought about by the Napoleonic Wars, which lasted until 1815. This period in European history left Prussia with political unrest, as authoritarian governments took the places of democratic ones. Etzler had ideas about creating a utopia in the United States, but disputes arose en route, and the group split. Roebling and his brother purchased 1582 acres (6.4 km²) of land on October 28, 1831, in Butler County, Pennsylvania with the intent to establish a German settlement, called Saxonburg. Most of the other settlers remained with Etzler. The John Roebling House at Saxonburg was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
John Roebling and his brother arrived in the United States at an interesting time. The nation was in the later stages of an economic boom, which ended in the Panic of 1837. Farmers were deeply affected by it. Transportation between eastern industrial hubs and frontier farming markets had become a matter of both national and popular interest. Many transportation projects were underway near the location he chose for his colony, but instead of continuing as an engineer, he took up farming. After five years he married Johanna Herting, a tailor’s daughter. Agrarian work did not appeal to John Roebling, and the colony attracted very few settlers. In 1837, after the death of his brother and the birth of his first child, he returned to engineering as a vocation.
Roebling’s first engineering work in the U.S. was devoted to improving river navigation and canal building. He spent three years surveying for railway lines across the Allegheny Mountains, from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, for the state of Pennsylvania. In 1840 he wrote to suspension bridge designer Charles Ellet, Jr., offering to help with the design of a bridge near Philadelphia:
The study of suspension bridges formed for the last few years of my residence in Europe my favorite occupation … Let but a single bridge of the kind be put up in Philadelphia, exhibiting all the beautiful forms of the system to full advantage, and it needs no prophecy to foretell the effect which the novel and useful features will produce upon the intelligent minds of the Americans.
Roebling began producing wire rope at Saxonburg in 1841. At that time canal boats from Philadelphia were transported over the Allegheny Mountains on railroad cars to access waterways on the other side of the mountains, so that the boats could continue to Pittsburgh. The system of inclines and levels that moved the boats and conventional railroad cars was a state-owned enterprise, the Allegheny Portage Railroad. The railroad cars were pulled up and down the inclines by a long loop of thick hemp rope, up to 7 cm thick. The hemp ropes were expensive and had to be replaced frequently. Roebling remembered an article he read about wire ropes. Soon after, he started developing a 7-strand wire rope at a ropewalk that he built on his farm.
In 1844 Roebling won a bid to replace the wooden canal aqueduct across the Allegheny River with the Allegheny Aqueduct. His design encompassed seven spans of 163 feet (50m), each consisting of a wooden trunk to hold the water supported by a continuous cable made of many parallel wires, wrapped tightly together, on each side of the trunk. This was followed in 1845 by building a suspension bridge over the Monongahela River at Pittsburgh.
In 1848 Roebling undertook the construction of four suspension aqueducts on the Delaware and Hudson Canal.The images above show the aqueducts at Minisink Ford, High Falls, and Cuddebackville. The sepia tone is across from my house where there is a small beach, and the bottom image shows the abutments as they are today (my house is to the left). All but the aqueduct at Minisink were taken down in the early 20th century.
During this period, he moved to Trenton, New Jersey. In Trenton, Roebling built a large industrial complex for wire production. This complex inspired the Trenton, New Jersey motto on Trenton’s Lower Trenton Bridge.
Roebling’s next project, starting in 1851, was a railroad bridge connecting the New York Central and Great Western Railway of Canada over the Niagara River, which would take four years. The bridge, with a clear span of 825 feet (251m), was supported by four, ten-inch (25 cm) wire cables, and had two levels, one for vehicles and one for rail traffic.
While the Niagara bridge was being built, Roebling undertook another railway suspension bridge, across the Kentucky River which required a clear span of 1,224 feet (373m). The anchorage and stone towers were completed, and the cable wire delivered along with the material for the superstructure, when the railway company became insolvent. The bridge construction was halted, and was later finished as a truss bridge.
In 1859 Roebling completed another suspension bridge at Pittsburgh. Its total length was 1,030 feet (314m), consisting of two main spans of 344 feet (105m) each, and two side spans of 171 feet (52m) each.
The American Civil War brought a temporary halt to Roebling’s work. However, in 1863 building resumed on a bridge over the Ohio River at Cincinnati which he had started in 1856 and halted due to financing; the bridge was finished in 1867. The Cincinnati-Covington Bridge, later named the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, was the world’s longest suspension bridge at the time it was finished.
In 1867 Roebling started design work on what is now called the Brooklyn Bridge, spanning the East River in New York. Roebling devised “an equilibrium strength approach, in which equilibrium is always satisfied but compatibility of deformations is not enforced.” This was essentially an approximation method similar to the force method: First, Roebling computed the dead and live loads, then divided the load between the cables and the stays. Roebling added a large safety factor to the divided loads and then solved for the forces. This approach gave a sufficiently accurate analysis of the structure given the assumption that the structure was sufficiently ductile to handle the resulting deformation.
While surveying the site of the Brooklyn tower for the Brooklyn Bridge, the tip of Roebling’s right foot was crushed by a docking boat. After his toes were amputated, Roebling was diagnosed with tetanus and developed lockjaw. He suffered severe seizures and periodically lapsed into a coma before dying in the early morning hours of July 22, 1869 in Brooklyn Heights, New York. Roebling is buried in the Riverview Cemetery in Trenton, New Jersey.
Roebling’s son Washington Roebling and his daughter-in-law Emily Warren Roebling continued his work on the Brooklyn Bridge. His son Ferdinand expanded his wire rope business. His son Charles Roebling designed and invented a huge 80 ton wire rope machine and founded the town of Roebling, New Jersey where the John A. Roebling’s Sons company steel mill was built. His grandson Washington A. Roebling II perished on the RMS Titanic. His great-grandson Donald Roebling was a noted philanthropist and inventor who devised the amphtrack (amphibious landing craft).
Roebling’s home town of Mühlhausen is in Thuringia now in central Germany. Its cuisine is very much what is thought of as prototypically German cooking – wursts, braised beef, pig knuckles, dumplings, and sauerkraut. In a number of places where Roebling designed bridges, such as Cincinnati, there were large populations of German immigrants who brought with them the basics of German-American cooking. Among the most popular dishes, well loved in Thuringia, is sauerbraten – beef marinated in vinegar for days and then slow cooked in the marinade.
2 cups water
1 cup cider vinegar
1 cup red wine vinegar
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 tbsp plus 1 tsp kosher salt, additional for seasoning meat
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 bay leaves
6 whole cloves
12 juniper berries
1 tsp mustard seeds
3 ½ to 4lb bottom round, whole
1 tbsp vegetable oil
? cup sugar
18 dark old-fashioned gingersnaps (about 5 ounces), crushed
In a large saucepan over high heat combine the water, cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, onion, carrot, salt, pepper, bay leaves, cloves, juniper, and mustard seeds. Cover and bring this to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Pat the bottom round dry and rub with vegetable oil and salt on all sides. Heat a large saute pan over high heat; add the meat and brown on all sides, approximately 2 to 3 minutes per side.
When the marinade has cooled to a point where you can stick your finger in it and not be burned, place the meat in a non-reactive vessel and pour over the marinade. Place into the refrigerator for 3 days. If the meat is not completely submerged in the liquid, turn it over once a day.
After 3 days of marinating, preheat the oven to 325°F/160°C.
Add the sugar to the meat and marinade, cover and place on the middle rack of the oven and cook until tender, approximately 4 hours.
Remove the meat from the vessel and keep warm. Strain the liquid to remove the solids. Return the liquid to the pan and place over medium-high heat. Whisk in the gingersnaps and cook until thickened, stirring occasionally. Strain the sauce through a fine mesh sieve to remove any lumps. Add the raisins if desired. Slice the meat and serve with the sauce and boiled potatoes or dumplings.